Chilluns bile an’ babis bubbil.
A BACHELOR, I never fully appreciated this Southern ditty until, in my wanderings, I reached the village of Royton. This North Carolina settlement consisted of a double row of frame-and-shingle houses scattered, along the road halving a gigantic waste of second-growth pine and tall, feathery broom-grass, whose murmurous silence had become its own. Nothing was ever undignified or noisy about. Royton, except, its overworked churchbell which always gave tongue at the slightest provocation; the village, its turbid river, and the surrounding wilderness itself, seemed wrapped in eternal Sunday. At sunset, down the wide expanse of red clay known as Main Street, loped the big brown rabbits of the sedge-fields. As if aware that they were ‘nigger game,’ and that the price of ‘hyar skins,’ at the post-office store, had recently slumped to three cents from the boom price of five cents, they barely condescended to dodge under the house porches when perfunctorily snapped at by some of the pointers of the town — magnificent dogs, apparently belonging to nobody.
Royton was a democracy of sport. The river lowlands swarmed with game; everybody’s gun and dog belonged to everybody else, and everybody went ‘gun-crazy’ when the sassafras turned yellow. The men — mostly engaged in cotton-raising, when not hunting — were typical Southerners, generous and sociable, keeping open house, and liking nothing better than to have the transient stranger drop in to supper, even though it were only cold coon and cornbread. Singularly, their chief characteristic was an extreme New England sadness. To see them, one would have thought they bore the burden of the world. Nevertheless, they loved dearly to talk, and, still more, to listen, and, occasionally, forgetting dread responsibility, were sombrely gay. And this, despite the awful thought that, with every fourth tick of the clock (they were well primed with missionary statistics), a hapless native of Hindustan, or of East Africa, died and went to hell — a catastrophe inevitable to those perishing without the Methodist version of ‘The Word,’ for which negligence, they, the enlightened of Royton, would, at the Judgment, be held collectively and individually responsible because they had not sent enough missionaries. Meanwhile, the negro population at their doors flourished in a state of joyous unmorality which would have been a credit to Liberia.
To offset this religious incubus, the older men appeared to have no redeeming petty vices. Cards were anathema, horse-races, frivolous books, and newspapers were unheard of; they chewed little, smoked less, and drank not at all. Even business trips to Weldon were under surveillance. But there was one subject upon which all could relax and discuss freely — hunting. My brother Charley, a famous shot, had hunted in many states. I had hunted since boyhood. Consequently, nearly every night our room held an areopagus of solemn bearded farmers, sitting on the bed, straddling chairs, trunks, boxes, or anything they could sit on, holding session until twelve, and, when the events of the day’s hunting were exhausted, waiting eagerly for somebody to say something new.
Mr. Ransom Tracy, with whom, on our second trip, we boarded, was a tall, swarthy, dark-haired man, with tired eyes and a droopy black moustache. He was as brave as a hawk and as hardy as a wolf—one of the quiet, iron-handed few, who, with buckshot and rope, kept down the sullen, halfwild negroes. But indoors — what a change! Never lived a man so utterly cowed by his own actions — narrowing religion and redundant matrimony. He must, indeed, have been ‘caught young’ to have become so absolutely domesticated. Even now, for all his fortyeight years, hard times, and low cotton, he continued to be an anti-Malthusian renowned beyond the borders of his native state. His house, though unpainted, weatherworn, and dilapidated, was the undisputed centre of that amiable industry. It buzzed, it swarmed, it seethed with life — life all-pervading and never quiet.
Within the dingy, low-ceiled diningroom, at morning and evening, fraternally feasted Mr. Tracy, his wife, nine children of nine consecutive ages and every variation of temper, three black-and-tan foxhounds, two cats, a pointer puppy, my brother, myself, our two setters, and an opossum. This last, an involuntary guest, was usually confined within a slatted box and dragged continuously around by child number three (reckoning in order from the baby). Now and then, the enchanted owner would insert a hand through the slats, wiggle his fingers, and gurgle, ‘Putty Pussy! Putty Pussy!’ to the evil, white rat-face cowering at the bottom. Somehow the anticipated yells never came.
During supper, which invariably consisted of fried muskrat, fried squirrel, fried quail or robins, fried cabbage, and — I had nearly said fried — coffee, and heavy bread, the children, aligned along the walls, like caryatides in a temple, kept anxious lookout for a possible seat. When a vacancy occurred at table, a miniature class-rush always took place for the coveted position. The from-four-to-eight-year-olds never became entirely accustomed to us. Even when deep in bread-andmolasses, they kept gazing in wonder and awe at the ferocious ‘strangers.’ When spoken to, they would shyly turn aside their pretty, tousled heads, stick a particularly dirty finger into the corner of a rosebud mouth, and giggle in the fascinating way which, nowadays, one finds only in telephoneless country districts.
The dogs, having from necessity become comparatively friendly, had formed beneath the table an association for the recovery of scraps. There, canopied by the table-cloth, — a permanent fixture, — they remained. The cats, from the safe altitude of the window-sills, regarded us with that Egyptian toleration for lesser races which, from lion to Manx, becomes them so well. Every few minutes, a moist, appealing nose appeared beneath the sheltering tablecloth. I can never resist those familiar, insistent nudges at my elbow, — there is no use trying, — so I would give the pleader a piece of gravy-soaked bread or something easily gulped.
Once I forgot and gave a muskrat thigh, which, fried, is about as palatable as a burned rubber shoe. This, being dragged into the midst of the association, — which was not getting fat on scraps, — instantly started, among our legs, a dog-fight of no small proportions. At the first growl, the younger children set up a concerted yell; the older ones jumped up, backed their chairs off, and got behind them; Mrs. Tracy set the baby out of harm’s way, while Charley and I lifted the tablecloth and grabbed at distinguishable parts of top dogs. As things got worse under the table, and more dogs, out in the hall, added their voices, Mr. Tracy, that long-suffering domestic pacifist, laid down his knife, lifted his droopy, black moustache from his coffee-saucer, licked it, looked thoughtfully, first at his guests, and then at his wife, rose, kicked viciously at the linen-draped snarl, and then swept, with one broadside of his booted leg, the entire warring mass out into the waiting darkness of the icy hall. The slamming door caught the tip of a vanishing tail or ear, and the ensuing yelps took five minutes to expire.
Supper over, we would retire by platoons to the adjacent sitting-room, where the from-four-to-eight-year-olds, after a careful elimination of lessfavored pets, distributed themselves, in positions dear to childhood, beneath the furniture, and there began tormenting their favorites, meanwhile peering out at us as if we were gorillas or strays from last year’s circus.
But this settling down was carried out in comparative quiet. An air of uneasy expectancy overhung the room; voices were lowered and eyes wandered toward the closed double-door of the hallway. Presently, it opened, and in strolled the two pretty grown-up daughters, for whose maiden dignity the dining-room chaos was, evidently, too much, and who had taken their meal in the back kitchen. As Charley and I stood upon their entry and offered them our chairs, and everybody else — often including a male visitor — kept, contrarily, the closer to their own seats, we acquired, in consequence, a reputation for extreme worldliness — in fact, were considered decidedly Episcopalian, whatever that implies.
For a while, all was peace. Presently, one of the younger girls, who had reached the age known as ‘fryin’ size,’ would become increasingly self-conscious, restless, and fidgety. Then, with a side glance at her mother, she would sidle over to what, at first sight, I had taken to be a combined hatrack, mirror, and writing-desk. On pulling a handle, down came the entire upper front half; a keyboard and a row of black-headed knobs appeared. A bit more pushing-in of knobs and pulling-out of handles, and it evolved into a sort of musical instrument — a ‘melodeon,’ I believe they called it. Then Miss Sweet Sixteen, planting herself before it, would give a twirl or two on her piano-stool, toss her red-ribbonecl pig-tail, and, with a vocal sister on each side, would commence ‘The Battle of Prague,’ or something equally thunderous. Shade of Wagner! The volume of sound emitted by this diabolical offspring of a steam calliope was beyond belief. Because of its being practically new, heavily polished, and much too tightly wound, it literally shook with brassy, jarring diapasons. The stuffy room, already overheated to headache point by a white-hot drum stove, seemed to rock and reel. Pictures on the walls, the efforts of high-school genius, — square, disheartening winter landscapes so a-glitter with powdered isinglass that they hurt the eye, — trembled on their wires. My seat being close to the stove and partly inclosed by the concave tin fire-screen, sound became tangible; it penetrated the inmost cells of my brain; my eyes grew hazy; through the haze the bright melodeon roared — a monstrous, brazen Moloch of sound; my ears boomed; the top of my head hurt.
Mr. Tracy regarded Moloch with visible uneasiness. His usual procedure, when the girls first began ‘making motions’ quasi-musical, was to pretend that he had n’t finished skinning muskrats in the back kitchen, or else to take his gun from a corner, sling his lantern over his shoulder, call his hounds, and announce that he was going to make a little round of the river shore to see if ‘I might n’t start me a coon’ — a motion always enthusiastically seconded by Charley and by ‘Budge’ Tracy, the oldest son. When forced by a frown from his wife to stay and face the music, moving his chair over beside me, he would cross his legs, loop his hands around his knee, and, locking his fingers in the form of ‘here’s the church and here’s the steeple,’ settle down for the evening with a marital look of ‘I can suffer and be still.’ Then, remembering, he would suddenly brace up and manfully assume the air of prideful despair distinctive of the fathers of marriageable daughters completing their schooling by ‘taking music.’ One night, during a lull in the soniferous typhoon, he confided to me, behind his hand: ‘Barton, dogged if the girls did n’t get their money’s worth when they got that thing. A cow was swapped for it. But [brightening] she war n’t much of a one. Mighty puny. They raised her.’
He was not the only one manifesting uneasiness concerning Moloch. One Saturday night the supply of dolorous secular discord gave out and the musician unexpectedly turned on a hymn. About half-way through the resultant uproar, happening to look up, I noticed, over against the closed diningroom door, a child — Adrian — number five (reckoning in order from the baby). He had thrown himself on the floor in a passion of rage and grief, and, totally disregarded, was revenging himself by lying on his back, with his feet over his head, drumming with frantic heels against the rattling panels. His glistening face was so crimsoned by inaudible screams that it seemed about to explode. When I rose and walked over to pick him up, Moloch stopped; but Adrian went on, and I was rubbing my arm, bruised by a wicked kick from the little demon, and thinking of the cynic Frenchman, who, distracted by his host’s children, drank a silent toast to the memory of Herod, when Mrs. Tracy remarked, ’Oh, don’t bother with him [smiling and rocking away in her low chair, which she overlapped, like a very opulent rising of dough in a very small bowl]. Let him alone. It’s “Rock of Ages.” He always does that way when it’s played. He don’t like it. Never did.’
During the second week of our stay Mr. Tracy was absent, and I sat at the head of the table. Children numbers two and four (reckoning from the baby) sat, one at each elbow. Number two, a fat, jolly, red-cheeked infant, at first, overawed at my baleful proximity, refused to eat. At the next meal, because of gumdrops, he became more friendly; and, at the next, after fixing me with a wide-eyed smile of recognition, he joyously waved his spoon aloft and brought it down on my ear in a pat of gumdroppy anticipation. The spoon, coated with hot oatmeal, filled the ear and scalded it considerably. Nursing it with a napkin, I was on the point of asking Mrs. Tracy to let me move to a safer locality, but she forestalled me. ‘Mr. Barton, you must n’t mind little Milton. He never had no table manners.’
Mrs. Tracy was dominant maternity personified. She had paid the toll. I often wondered what she must have looked like when a girl. Obviously, she had never been a sylph; but even now, when she smiled, in her broad, kindly, double-chinned face, one could still catch the pathetic ghost of girlish beauty. Married and mother at fifteen, her home was her world. And that world she knew; there was nothing domestic that was foreign to her; but of the world beyond her door she knew no more than if it had not existed. She considered herself a wonderful cook, and the main joy of her life was a peculiarly tall cooking-stove built somewhat on the style of the melodeon. She really knew no more about cooking than a Patagonian. It never seemed to occur to her that pine-knots are too hasty for anything unfryable.
One morning, at a lamp-light breakfast, after vainly looking the table over for something more than partly done, I decided to try the rolls. These case-shot were the only edibles within reach which appeared to have had more than a distant acquaintance with fire, the tops being brown, the middles moist, and the bottoms raw dough. I was getting along fairly well, eating the tops and slyly putting the doughy parts into my shooting-coat pocket, intending, later, to give them to my dogs. All at once there came a lull in the buzz of matutinal conversation. Glancing up, I caught her eye fixed upon the pocket, which was bulging considerably. She spoke, icily severe, yet striving to keep her ‘company manners’: ‘I think I never seen a man eat hot bread like you. That’s seven of them rolls you’ve had already.’
Within a week of our arrival, we were almost members of the family. Our room, after we had gone hunting, was a Golconda for all the children. They must have spent the day there, judging by its looks at night. Our traveling-cases were turned inside out, our satchels invaded and rummaged to the linings, our clothes scattered, and our pipes sucked at for hours — the silver bands around the stems irresistibly fascinating the smallest toddlers. Sometimes a persistent sucker got sick, but never discouraged.
Two of the younger girls remained aloof. The elder, whom I called ‘Swamp Angel,’ pleased with her title, was merely shy; her sister, however, continued to regard me with such terror that it finally became a family joke. Often, to the infinite delight of all, at my slightest move in her direction, falling into uncontrollable panic, she would run from the room, or hide behind a chair whenever she caught my eye singling her out; thence she would peep out at me and dodge quickly back again, just as a sapsucker dodges around the trunk of an apple tree. I called her ‘Miss Sapsucker.’ The name still clings as fast as her namesake to its perch.
Determined to win them, I suggested to the family that we hold a storytelling contest. They were delighted. After that, every evening, when we were all gathered in the sitting-room, the fun began. I ransacked my memory, and, when my turn came, always started off with a fantastic tale from Vicram and the Vampire. This had one good effect — it stopped the melodeon. But it made the little girls shyer than ever, and I had about given up hope of making friends, when, on the last day of our hunt, both joined me, out in the pine woods, under pretense of looking for their cows. It was, evidently, a plot; it showed in every giggle. Very charming they looked, laughing and blushing, their hoods of white-andcrimson wool crowning long tresses of brown hair. They could outwalk a wolf, and gave me all I could do to keep up. For a while, restrained and timid, they kept off at one side; but oriental enchantment had done its work: soon, edging in, they walked closer, still keeping off, but listening eagerly to tales of afrite, genie, sultan, and slave, and venturing breathless, long-range questions. The first rabbit, starting from under my feet, bolting straight at them, and tumbled heelsover-head by a long shot as it swerved aside, dismissed the last trace of shyness until the excitement of picking it up had worn off. Then, panic-stricken, the younger girl ran away and hid behind a tree. Her sister, suddenly brave in her thirteen years, walked beside me, carrying the game.
It was lunch-time. We had walked four miles without another shot. Suddenly a succession of shrieks announced that Miss Sapsucker, still loitering behind, had started a rabbit all by herself. I scored a glorious miss with both barrels when bunny dodged down the rows of a cotton-patch, where the myriads of fluffy bolls made everything look like a multiplex ‘cotton-tail.’ Away it went over a distant hill. But not in peace. Before I could reload, Miss Sapsucker was up with us. She called her sister, and off ran the excited pair, so out of breath that they could hardly squeal. Then a little boy, carrying an immense shot-gun, came out of a thicket and joined the chase; and, far in the rear, our three black-and-tan foxhounds came slowly into view, nosing out the cold trail and beginning melodiously to mourn over it. Now, striking scent, they woke up, swept past, and, outstripping the runners, all vanished over the hill.
Run as I might, there was no catching up, and soon, losing all trace, I stopped at a farmhouse for news. There I was told that the mistress, a widow woman with a reputation for ‘running’ people off her place, had gone down to the spring to sec who was hunting on her land. I hurried on, reached the spring, broke through a tangle of intervening greenbriar, and saw a pair of black-stockinged legs waving wildly in the air, while their owner, Miss Sapsucker, stuck half-way into a hole beneath the roots of a wateroak, endeavored to pull out her dearest hound, which was holding on to something, ‘like grim death to a dead nigger.’ Growlings, scratchings, and muffled cries bubbled up from the underworld. Her sister, clasping an armful of struggling dogs, — including the pointer puppy which Mr. Tracy had been trying to keep from the very name of rabbit, — crouched on an overhanging root, ready to let slip the dogs at the first bolt of the quarry. The diminutive cannoneer, resting the barrel of his field-piece in a crotch, kept attentive lookout, and the widow, who had rushed there, supposedly, to drive them off, was enthusiastically directing operations with an axe.
This scene, the very spirit of the autumnal South, remains one of my rarest hunting memories. The warm November sunlight, showering through the russet of the still-foliaged wateroak, ruddying the silver hair of the old lady with the axe, and setting in shadowy relief the flushed cheeks and glowing eyes of the lovely Swamp Angel, the hollow baying of the eager hounds — all a vision never fading.
On Sunday mornings, a spick-andspan red-wheeled buggy, containing two admirers from ‘up the road a piece,’ would drive to our front gate and hitch. The occupants spent the forenoon in abject misery on the back porch, waiting for somebody to come home from church. They seldom spoke to me, but regarded me with dark suspicion. Stiff, in best suits of undertaker’s black; hair ‘roached’ back and so shiny with bear’s grease, or something unctuous, that it shone like a crow’s wing in the sunlight; mouths partly open; feet and hands increasingly in the way; red ‘store’ ties of the ‘butterfly’ pattern; tight tan shoes and nervously twirling bamboo walkingsticks — they looked a desperately uncomfortable pair of mortals. They knew that the eyes of the entire community were centred on their every action; that their faint moustaches, ties, walking-sticks, and buggy would be the chief subjects of conversation for the next week; and that the name of their respective beloveds was emblazoned in letters of flame upon their respective ‘biled’ shirt-bosoms. So miserable and wilted were they by dinner-time, that it would be three o’clock before the gathering of sufficient courage to ask of the Adored, sedately perched upon the edge of a distant chair, ‘Miss Ellie — er, care about taking a little walk —
I mean up the road, to see Aunt Bessie’s dahlias?’